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Important Women in History: redressing the balance

It is right that historians from time to time revise our interpretation of the past, specifically rethinking what previous historians believed and wrote. 

As the oft quoted maxim says, ‘history is written by the winners’, and this can sometimes mean that certain historical figures don’t get a fair deal. 

A good example is Genghis Khan, whose history was actually mainly written by those he attacked, and this has, arguably, led to an unbalanced view of his leadership and achievements.  One of the most interesting and challenging history books I have read in recent years is Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, who argues that Western historians have been quick to point out Genghis’s ‘bad’ deeds (it is unarguable that he and his successors killed a lot of people), but have not given him any credit for his positive emphasis on meritocracy and equality; very modern concepts.

It is also true that the majority of historians have tended to be men, and so have often overlooked, or underplayed, the achievements of women in history (though this point is sometimes over argued – undeniably and exceptionally, Boudicca and Elizabeth I have received a lot of attention).

All this said, I believe there is one woman in history who is due a lot more attention and that is Alfred the Great’s daughter Aethelflaed. This last couple of weeks, I have been looking at her life and influence with my Year 5 historians.

Aethelflaed was clearly a remarkable character.  The respected historian Tom Holland (not Spiderman!), describes her as “England’s founding mother”  Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians - YouTube, and her achievements and contribution to the dream that was a united Saxon England (that was so fragile at the time of the Viking invasions) is huge.  Again arguable, but would Aethelstan have achieved the things he did without Aethelflaed?

I believe that Aethelflaed warrants further inspection, and it is disappointing to look at some of the lists of “important women of British History” online and not see her there.  It is my hope that the patronage of historians like Tom Holland will bring her to greater attention, as I think she deserves it, but more generally it is vital that we continue to find and celebrate important women who had a real impact on history.  

I believe this to be especially important in a boys' Prep school.  Having influential female role models is vital for boys, and recognising women’s historical importance, by learning about and celebrating those who have done much for our history, is one way to redress the balance.

History is indeed often written by the winners, and in the past the winners were often men.  Important female historical figures have not always had a fair deal, and this is something that we need to correct.

Alistair Duncan
Interim Head

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